FEATHERED AVATARS

Except for the mythic condor, pelicans are the largest birds in North America. Enormous flocks, properly referred to as squadrons, migrate seasonally through our western corner of the Mojave, NW in spring and SE in fall, across wide stretches of desert between waters where they feed. For reasons only they could know, they never utilize the tremendous lift in our local mountains. Every time we see them approaching or sailing away, it always seems more about course line than local geography. And right now the NW season is upon us.

When thermaling, pelicans form into huge silvery spheres like holograms of bubbles in the sky, slowly pulsing from light to dark to light as they circle. It’s wickedly tempting to fly near them, share in their lift and get a closer look, but we really shouldn’t. I wrote some time ago about feeling a pelican’s tail brush our wheel when I came too close, and how scared I was for the bird. Risk of collision, though, is not the only issue.

Could these creatures with brains the size of a walnut have reasoned responses to aircraft? Doesn’t seem likely. Yet their actions do display definite organization. We’ve all seen flocks of birds, schools of fish, or even clouds of insects sashaying in perfect unison, as with one mind. Enough to make even a drill sergeant smile.

And we mar this ineffable beauty every time we intrude.

Any time I’ve tried to join flocking birds they’ve broken formation and fled, some reversing course, to form up again only after I fell behind or below. Animals in migration operate on tight budgets of time and fuel, and can’t afford to consume either precious resource dodging fools like us. We must appreciate this and leave them to their far more serious business.

But what if they approach us? One unforgettable day we were already circling in a predictable manner and posing no threat when at least a hundred pelicans swirled up from below. For one long dreamlike minute, a fog of enormous white wings floated all around us, above and below, ahead and behind, wafting silently inside a feather pillow fallen dizzily upward. Borne aloft by avatars!

Soon they’d climbed high overhead and gone for the season, but talk about goosebumps! That may always remain my single most gratifying encounter in the sky, made possible simply because we let them initiate contact.